In this episode, host Carol McFarland talks with Moses Boone of Holland-Boone Farm
outside of Palouse, Washington on experimenting to overcome no-till seeding spring crops into high
residue and other barriers to full adoption of no-till practices, balancing soil health with production
goals, why he isn’t currently growing cover crops, return on investment for experimentation, and
what keeps farmers from experimenting today.
Carol McFarland: Today we’re visiting the Holland-Boone farm just outside of Palouse, Washington, with Mr. Moses Boone. So glad to be with you today. Thanks for having me on your farm and really looking forward to the conversation. Welcome to the podcast.
Moses Boone: Thank you. Thank you. It’s great to be here Carol.
Carol McFarland: Great! Would you share a little bit about yourself, your farm, who you farm with?
Moses Boone: Sure. My name is Moses Boone. I’m a fifth generation family farmer. I farm here with my dad. It’s kind of me and my parents run the farm. in about a 20 inch rainfall zone, so we’re mainly growing wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas. And what I have kind of set as my goals for the farm are to try to figure out a way to consistently and reliably eliminate tillage.
It’s something that my dad has been trying to do. He’s an early adopter of no-till, but there’s always been issues where, you know, it seems like the only way to fix it is to break out the plow every once in a while. So, you know, he’s been trying to do that since the eighties.
And, you know, I think there’s a way to do it. But as I’m sure we’re going to talk about, I think it’s going to take a little more experimentation to figure out how at least farmers in this area can finally get there.
Carol McFarland: Yes, we’re definitely all about experimenting. That’s great! Well, if you want to describe a little bit more, about your moisture, but maybe also a little bit about your soil conditions and how many combines you run.
Moses Boone: Okay. We’re mainly like, you know, loam type soils. We have clay loam. We have silt loam soils. Right. We run two combines. I like that just to be one, one bigger one, but maybe in a year or two we’ll be there. The standard crop rotations in this area. I guess they’re changing a little bit now. A lot more people are starting to grow canola, but traditional crop rotation, there’s kind of two main ones.
There’s the three year rotation that’s winter wheat and then the spring grain, either spring wheat or barley. our pulse crop, you know, usually chickpeas or lentils, sometimes dry peas. And the other rotation, the two year rotation would be just winter wheat. And then a pulse crop. And I kind of do a blend of the two. I do basically the three year rotation and then the two year rotation after that.
So it’s five years overall and that allows us to use- we have more options to use the different herbicides in a three year rotation, but our biggest struggle with no-till is no-tilling the spring grain crop. So by doing that three-year and two-year back to back, we only have one spring grain crop every five years.
00:15:45:14 – 00:16:12:01
So it sort of…it mitigates the problem and every once in a while we’ll get lucky and we’ll feel like we can no-till our barley or spring grain. But so far we’re still doing a little bit of tillage every once in a while.
Carol McFarland: Do you want to talk a little bit more about some of the conditions that have allowed you to skip that tillage pass for your spring crops?
Moses Boone: Yeah, well, with the lentils and the chickpeas we no-tilled all of those this year. And one thing is that one of the things that helps with those is there that we see them after the spring grain. So it’s a little bit later in the spring, the ground’s had more time to warm up and dry out.
So. So that helps with being able to get the equipment over the ground without getting stuck. And, you know, just in general, seeds don’t like being in cold soil. They don’t like being planted in mud. They don’t grow well when the ground is saturated. So just by virtue of being planted a little bit later, that helps I would say for the last several years, we’ve now tilled all of our pulse crops.
It’s just the spring grains that are still the issue when we have been able to no- till those it’s sort of…it’s usually because the previous year’s winter wheat crop wasn’t very good. So there’s just not too much residue out there.
Carol McFarland: Those farming trade offs.
Moses Boone: Yeah. Yeah. It’s, it’s, it’s sort of like, well we don’t have to till, but we kind of wish we did.
Carol McFarland: Yeah.
Moses Boone: But yeah, the spring grains in this area. Yields are dependent on seeding date. the time between when you seed and when things kind of dry out in the summer and the plants don’t have enough moisture to grow anymore. That window is just so short in this area. And I think most farmers around here would agree that it seems like the rule of thumb is every day that you delay seeding, it’s going to cost you a bushel per acre at harvest time.
So depending on the size of your farm, if it’s going to take you a week or two weeks to get all your seeding done and you delay the start by one day, that translates to a huge yield loss across your whole farm. And we’ve had different experiments that we’ve done out here dealing with the crop residue.
And sometimes they work backwards. We had one where after harvest we went back out with the combine and we recut all of our stubble really short and ran it through the combine and spread it out over the field because we had a lot of crop residue and that turned out to be just a disaster.
There’s, you know, like a two inch thick layer of mulch on the surface that was just keeping all the moisture in and keeping the sun off of the soil. We seeded our spring grain crop about six weeks later than our conventional neighbors. So that, you know, stuff like that is not not sustainable.
Carol McFarland: In many contexts and at least in some of these dry land areas, you know, being able to keep the moisture in the soil without having to cover it is very good for the conditions until you want to seed it into them.
We’re starting to talk about this a little. I’m interested to know as you’re trying some of these different things, what do you look for in your trials? So if you want to describe a couple of things that you have going on right now or any favorite trials that you have going on out there at this point, and then what you look at through the season.
Moses Boone: Yeah. So, you know, there’s a lot of things we could potentially measure and things that I’m sure we would be measuring if this was a research farm and an academic setting. As a working farm, kind of the only thing that we’re really looking at is, is the bottom line because yeah, we can, there’s so many things that I’d like to do for the sake of soil health and there’s so many things that we could do.
But if it’s not financially sustainable, you know, all of that is, is for nothing really, because I know someone listening to this might, might think, oh, you’re just you’re just being greedy. But, you know, if we go broke trying to improve the soil health, whoever comes and farms this ground next isn’t going to do the same thing. You know, I think it’s incumbent on a farmer who cares about their ground to find a way to do it, you know, not just environmentally sustainably, but economically sustainably, too, as…you know, otherwise the next person’s going to come in here and just just undo all the good that we did and we could just save ourselves a lot of time and then sold out before we went broke. So-
Carol McFarland: Yeah, doesn’t help anyone to go broke.
Moses Boone: No, no. So that’s the main thing that we look at. And the other thing that we look at is, you know, we just kind of watch the field, see how it works, you know, over the course of the year, which is actually a bit of a pitfall, I think, for for anyone who’s getting into no-till or conservation agriculture because even though my dad’s been doing this since the eighties, he still deals with it. We were talking about it this morning. He’s like, man, I feel it doesn’t look very good. And I have to say it’s no-till. It’s not going to look good! Those- when you have all that crop residue out in the field, it never is going to look as good. At least in the early stages as a conventionally farmed field.
Carol McFarland: So it sounds like watching your no-till lentils is a bit like the stock market where you just shouldn’t look too close on any given day. But it’s really about the outcome.
Moses Boone: Yeah, as long as there’s still something there in the account, when it’s time to retire. Yeah. Yeah. No, it’s- Well, you know, the conventional farmed ground where, where you’ve done your tillage and you know, you’ve worked up the soil, there’s no crop residue, you’ve smoothed everything out.
You know, the soil is nice and, and black or dark brown looking. And so one you can have a lot more uniform planting depth with your seed when there’s no residue on top. When there’s a bunch of residue on top, it’s never uniform. It varies from place to place. And that affects your seeding depth from place to place.
And so when you have a lot of crop residue, usually your emergence isn’t uniform. You know, it doesn’t, you know, some of the seeds need a little longer to come out before the other ones. Whereas conventional ground, it seems like, you know, overnight just everything pops up out of the ground. And when it does, you have these nice bright green shoots against this dark background of the soil.
So there’s high contrast. That’s easy to see.
Carol McFarland: It looks really satisfying.
Moses Boone: It looks really, really satisfying.
Carol McFarland: The neighbors like to see that too.
Moses Boone: Yeah, everybody likes to see it where, as you know, the conservation and no-till stuff with a lot of crop residue, as a lot of times the crop residue is still taller than the crop that you’re growing for several weeks or even you know, a month or more.
So when you look out from a distance, you don’t see all the plants, you just see the residue unless you’re standing, you know, right above the plant looking straight down, you might not see it. We had an experiment a few years ago where we split a field in half and and half. We tilled the other half, got a cover crop planted, excuse me, planted in the fall.
And then we terminated the cover crop and planted the spring crop. And that conservation side, it looked like a crop failure. It looked like there was going to be nothing there, especially compared to the conventional side, which, yeah, just nice, bright green. And on the conventional side, especially from the road, even the weeds contribute to it looking good because the weeds are green too.
So you see all the green out there and you think, Wow, that’s great. But then at harvest time there was a slight difference. The conservation side was down on yield, but not by much. We were expecting half a crop and it was down maybe 10%. So, you know you you really have to be you have to kind of put the blinders on and just just ignore some of that stuff because, we could have, you know, a few weeks into it when there was no emergence, we could have decided, you know, we’re going to take it all out and just leave that ground fallow.
You know, this was a failure, but it was a good thing. We saw it through to completion because even though the yield was down a little bit on the conservation side, all that crop residue kept the grassy weeds at bay and we didn’t have to spray for grassy weeds on that side of the field. And that savings made up for the difference in yield.
And so we made the same amount of money on both sides. But on the conservation side, I saved myself a trip with the sprayer and I would definitely rather not be spraying.
Carol McFarland: That’s a perfect segue way into how you evaluate the return on investment on a new practice and one of the things that I also want to emphasize, so not just the dollar return on investment, are there other parts of your management goals in your farm that you’re you’re looking at when when you’re really looking at the ROI on a practice?
Moses Boone: So yeah, the nonfinancial side, that’s like I said, my main focus has been trying to eliminate those tillage operations for the sake of soil health. And there’s just so much evidence now that even just minor amounts of tillage, you know, just a light pass with the harrow or, or things like that continually degrade the soil much faster than it’s built up, and in the Palouse region, we have a lot of topsoil
Carol McFarland: Unless you’re on a hilltop
Moses Boone: Yeah, yeah, people have been able to get away with kind of damaging practices for a very long time. And I think for some of them, it’s given them the impression that they’ll just be able to keep doing this forever because, you know, they’re also fourth and fifth generation farmers and they’ve been doing it for so long now, what’s the problem? But any place where there’s an area that’s been farmed right next to an area that hasn’t been farmed, you can see the difference in elevation. You can see that that soil has been eroded, and is blowing away and it’s washing down the streams. I could just go about doing business as usual and leave the problem for the next person. But, you know, I believe that the waste is just inherently wrong. If you can achieve your objectives without being wasteful, that’s always a better option. So that’s the main, main thing I, I, that keeps me up at night is trying to figure out how, how we can do that.
The financial ROI…before I was a farmer, I worked for an electronics manufacturer. I was a process engineer and one of my jobs was specing out new equipment and designing new processes. And the management always wanted to see, you know, okay, what’s, what’s going to be the return on investment for this? And at that particular company, what they wanted to see was a return on investment of one year or less.
And then they give the green light to the project. And here on the farm, that’s kind of laughable. You know, we look at our return on investment. If we can get it within a decade, we feel like we’ve done a great job, you know, especially even something like, like purchasing farmland right now, the prices are are so out of line with what what might be considered financially viable for a farmer, You know, the return on investment for a farmer, for a farm ground who’s who’s not a speculator, who’s not planning to turn around and sell it for a profit in a few years.
If you’re only making money by farming, that could be 30, 40, 50 years. So we’re really looking at really long time frames for our return on investment. Mainly, we’re, you know, when I’m doing these experiments and mainly looking for that, that aspect that gave me closer to conservation agriculture and not losing money, you know, if it just breaks even, but it achieves those other conservation goals, then, then I’m happy.
Carol McFarland: Protecting that long term capital investment too. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learned from a past trial?
Moses Boone: Mm hmm. Well, I think that that past trial that I talked about where we split the field in half and, uh, the cover crop side had the, uh, had the weed suppression benefit.
I was really surprised by that because I had done a lot of research on cover crops and, you know, heard people talk about all the reported benefits of it. And when they would say, you know, you’re not going to need the spray for weeds as much, I thought I would just roll my eyes. I thought that was ridiculous.
You know, I really didn’t expect that it could make that much of a difference. If it did make a difference , I thought that there would still be enough weeds in the field that I would still have to go out and spray. I thought maybe there’d be some suppression, but not not true control.
And so that was really surprising. What I was trying to achieve with growing the cover crops was to have some living plants there, to take some moisture out of the soil through transpiration. So that we could get out and we could seed sooner.
My father had mentioned to me once when we had a field that had been in winter wheat the year before and we had a lot of volunteer wheat growing in the field. And he said, you know, you’d better get out there and, and spray that because I’ve had this issue and there’s a lot of volunteer wheat growing.
It’ll use up so much moisture out of the soil that when you go and plant your spring crop, you won’t be putting the seed into moisture. You’ll be putting it into dry ground, I think. Well, it won’t grow unless we get rain. And I thought, wait a minute, we can’t no-till early enough because the ground’s too wet.
But here you’ve had this problem of plants growing in the field and drying out the field too much like let’s, you know, turn this bug into a feature you know and uh, so I was hoping that that would happen. But the trouble with cover crops in our area, when they’re planted in the fall, they just, they just don’t get enough moisture, you know, that some summer rains, some regular summer rains would really solve a lot of our our problems around here,
Carol McFarland: As it turns out, like those amazing Midwest growers that are growing, all that cover crop biomass.
Moses Boone: Yeah, exactly.
Carol McFarland: Yeah.
Moses Boone: But yeah, the plants are just the cover crop was really small going into winter and just didn’t have much time to get very big. And even by the time we had to terminate it in, in the spring before spring, planting there was hardly any biomass from, from the cover crop itself. You know, most of the biomass was just the crop residue from, from the previous year’s crop.
So it didn’t work at all to help dry the ground out. And I repeated that experiment with the cover crop a few more years to see if, you know, maybe it was just a year or something like that. And I tried different, different blends, different species of the plants and nothing really, really seemed to do the trick on that front.
But, it was interesting to see that some of these claims about different conservation practices seem like they’re too good to be true. Yeah, some of them are, but some of them aren’t. Some of them, some of them really do work.
Carol McFarland: That’s great! I would love to hear a little bit more especially when you did notice a difference in your weed or your grassy weeds you were describing.
What was that cover crop mix? Did it matter?
Moses Boone: I’m not sure that the mix mattered. It may have. I think the main thing that contributed to the suppression was the crop residue from the previous year. There was quite a bit of straw out there. The mix that I planted was triticale, uh, daikon radish turn up and winter peas and, you know, by the spring.
But when we went through and terminated the cover crop prior to planting, there wasn’t really anything except triticale. It seemed like there, you know, there were a few winter peas, they weren’t very big. And the radish and the turnip, it didn’t, didn’t really see any of those. We saw some later. There were some seeds that, you know, didn’t germinate or the plants weren’t growing or they didn’t get, uh, killed when we sprayed prior to planting.
So we had a few sporadic radishes here or there. And at harvest time. And that was kind of, kind of interesting. And I know that some plants can have sort of an allelopathic effect where they’re suppressing other plants from growing. So maybe they’re maybe the turnips or the radishes were contributing to that. But I don’t I wouldn’t know for sure.
I think it was mainly just the fact that the grassy weeds because we had plenty of broadleaf weeds in that field but you know, the grassy weeds that tend to have very small seeds that need to be close to the surface and the small seeds don’t have a lot of energy in them. They can’t push through a whole lot of soil or crop residue.
So if you have enough crop residue on the surface, I think the seeds germinate, but they just can’t get it out of it.
Carol McFarland: So are you still growing cover crops now?
Moses Boone: We haven’t, we haven’t continued with that. The cover crop, the weed suppression, paid for the yield loss compared to the conventional side. Um, but it didn’t cover the cost of the seed itself.
And so that cover crops seed, it tends to be, at least for us, fairly expensive because it’s sort of more of a specialty thing. There’s, you know, there’s not many suppliers and [they] make it in small quantities. So we probably don’t have the economies of scale that we need. I think if we were going to do it, if we were going to do it consistently, we’d probably want to be producing our own cover crop seed and we don’t have the storage facilities that we need for that anyway.
So for the time being, we’ve, we’ve stopped growing cover crops, but it’s not something that I’ve given up on entirely. I might be willing to revisit it.
Carol McFarland: Well, I think it’s really great that you also made sure to try it over a few different years because one of the best practices for experimentation is representing practice over both space and time.
So it sounds like, you know, you did half a field and then you had a comparison, great best practices in that context. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about something you’d like to try but can’t because of some sort of limitation right now, whether that’s the equipment, precipitation, lease agreement, that sort of thing.
Moses Boone: Oh, sure. The biggest limitation, as is always, money. It’s hard. It’s hard to do a lot of these things. I’d like to try and I, I come up with so many crazy ideas and so it’s a good thing I have my father here to bounce ideas off of. You know, sometimes I think he’s just been too old fashioned when he says, We better not try that.
But usually with hindsight I’m like, Yeah, that was a bad idea.
Carol McFarland: But yeah, well, you try things.
Moses Boone: Yeah, yeah. Small scale. It’s hard though, when things you want to try require equipment that’s, you know and, and that seems to be where my mind usually goes, is to equipment.
Carol McFarland: It’s like you’re a mechanical engineer.
Moses Boone: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And the one thing I’d really like to try because I, I, I think it has a good chance of working It’s just the logistics are, are really difficult at least with the equipment that, that we have available and with our topology around here with, with all the hills instead of mono cropping an entire field, I, I think it’d be interesting to try growing different crops in strips through the fields.
So strips that are, you know, the width of your seed drill and your combine header. So just this one pass with the drill and with a combine that size to match, that’s another issue for us right now that our drill is different sized than our combined header. But instead of that five year rotation that I, I described, instead of rotating fields, you just rotate strips within the field and the idea there would be that after we harvest all of our crops and we’re planting our after we’ve planted our winter wheat, so, so on, on our legume ground where we grow lentils or chickpeas, the year after that would always be for wheat.
So we go through and plant our fall wheat on those strips. And then where we had just harvested our winter wheat and have all of that heavy residue to cut that residue and transfer it on top of that winter wheat ground. And that way, you know, the winter wheat has time to grow through all that residue and basically it would clear all the ground that we have to plant in the spring so we wouldn’t be planting through any residue or any heavy residue.
There’d just be a small amount of stubble, all of that crop residue that we normally are fighting in the spring, it would have already been- it would be transferred over to the ground that we planted in the fall. So that would allow the spring planted strips to have time to warm up and dry out more in the spring.
We’ve experimented with having the straw baled all the way So we actually did that for a few years and it helped with our, our, our goals of spring. No, till it wasn’t, it wasn’t the silver bullet because we weren’t wind rowing with the combine. They were coming through with swathers later, and gathering things up.
So the combine still spread out a lot of residue that didn’t get picked up. But it reduced the amount of residue that we had to fight through. But losing all that organic matter is not good for the soil. And I think [it] was accelerating our pH problems. So even though it was helping in one area, I was worried about the long term consequences.
And so I decided that we shouldn’t be doing that anymore. But if we could, instead of hauling it away and hauling it off of the field, if we could just move it to a different part of the field, I think that that might work. I’m sure, where everything is flat, it’d be real easy to grow everything in strips like that. It’s really hard around here. We don’t have any flat or square fields. Another thing that would be similar would just be taking all that residue and maybe just putting it on top of the hill, you know, leaving it up there, grow your spring crop, and then then come back and spread it out over the field later after it’s had time to decompose.
That might be another thing. But again, all the equipment that you need to move that residue from place to place, it’s hard to figure out, you know, it might be worth the investment if we knew for sure that it was going to work. But it’s really hard to justify it for just an experiment.
Carol McFarland: Yeah, it definitely sounds like there’s some very real engineering mechanical barriers there. But yeah, I’ll soil science just for a moment here, but-
Moses Boone: Yeah, please.
Carol McFarland: I mean, absolutely. You’re talking about the value of the residue and you really notice that there’s when you export your residue off of out of your system, you know, it actually not only can accelerate soil acidification because you’re exporting base cations that are also essential plant nutrients, you’re also exporting more potassium and phosphorus.
And so- which are ultimately things you have to pay to put back into the system. So the carbon is really important, but also there’s all those other nutrients that you put into the plants in the first place. And so then to to remove more than you have to, ends up meaning that you have to put more back into your system, which typically there’s a dollar sign associated with that.
What a fun way to think about solving that problem and especially, maybe, moving that up the hills where it can be really useful in restoring some of the hilltops and increasing carbon up there. So thanks so much for sharing that idea. So what’s the biggest barrier to trying new things on your farm? I think maybe we started talking a little bit. Feel free to expand.
Moses Boone: Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely the money issue because there’s…usually trying something new. It might mean more equipment but at the very least that you know for us it, it usually means different equipment even if it’s not not additional equipment. So you know and then you’re talking about upgrading and so that gets expensive.
About the only thing that you can really try for free, sort of for free, is you can experiment with your rotation a little bit. But even that’s not really free because there’s a reason that traditional rotations that we grow around here are the traditional rotations. It’s not because nobody’s tried anything else. It’s because they’ve tried everything else, and this is what usually works the best. So it’s not really free to deviate from that plan either.
Carol McFarland: Yeah, that’s really insightful. I know we did an on-farm experimentation workshop this winter, this last winter. And one of the ways that we kind of tried to break it out a little bit too in different types of trials is products versus processes.
And so it sounds like crop rotation, I would categorize that as a process versus, you know, oh, this is a fungicide trial or something like that as more of a product.
Moses Boone: You know, another thing aside from the baling that we’ve done to control our crop residue and this is something that again, it works even better than, than the baling and that’s burning.
Carol McFarland: There’s rules against that aren’t there?
Moses Boone: Yes, yes. That’s probably for good reason because that’s the other thing where, you know, in talking with my father that you know, the one thing that I did that, you know, he quit doing it too, but that he did that was pretty much a sure fire way to, you know, tell those spring grains was to do burn that crop residue.
So it’s hard to say what’s worse, burning or tillage. I guess they’re just bad in different ways but…
Carol McFarland: Those tradeoffs, though.
I think the theme of it is how do we evaluate the trade off?
Okay. If you could change one thing about AG right now, what would it be? Oh, man.
Moses Boone: I think one thing that’s really difficult for farmers is we don’t have the ability to control our input costs or the cost of our final goods, at least not, you know, farmers who grow commodity crops like we do. You know, it’s kind of crazy. You know, in most other businesses when you produce something, you get to decide how much you’re going to sell it for.
For farmers, you know, we’re trading on the open market, so we don’t get to say, I want $9 for this bushel of wheat. We can either sell for whatever the market’s offering or not sell, and that’s our only option. And, you know, maybe there’s some huge farmers out there that have some kind of price leverage on either their input costs or the cost of their products.
But I think most farmers don’t. We certainly don’t. And so that’s really, really troubling. And, and, you know, another thing I know you said one thing, but I’m going to say another thing. I don’t think the actual cost of our agricultural products are reflected in the price of the products right now, because I know nobody wants their food to be more expensive.
And, you know, inflation is a huge problem that’s affecting everybody and the prices, everything’s going way up. But I don’t you know, as expensive as food is now, I still don’t think the true cost of what we’re producing is actually in the price, you know, because so much of our food is still produced with these destructive practices and, you know, we’re we’re sort of just this transferring the cost to the future where we’re sort of subsidizing the cost of our food right now at the expense of the future.
And those costs are going to come back eventually. And, you know, if the true cost was in the price, then I think farmers could afford to practice more, more conservation and more sustainable practices.
Carol McFarland: Yeah.
Moses Boone: The soil scientist agrees?
Carol McFarland: All of that. Thank you so much for sharing those insights because I think it is really meaningful.
It does seem like there are some growers around that get a bit creative with their marketing, but there isn’t necessarily the infrastructure regionally to do a lot of direct marketing. And farmers are already responsible for so much in just the production side of things. But going into marketing is just a whole and more vertical integration and shortened supply chains and all of that.
I mean, to put that burden on the farmers, it’s a pretty big one. And so but thanks for sharing all of that because you do get into things like economics and policy and ecosystem service valuation are all things that kind of fly around the scientific community and you can’t manage what you can’t measure. So some of the work that we do at the university level is definitely an effort to try to capture that and maybe at some point that can be a benefit that is passed along for both farmers and consumers.
Moses Boone: Yeah, it’s easy for me to say. I don’t think the real cost is reflected in the price, but yeah, I have no idea what the real cost is. It’s a really, really difficult question to answer and um, yeah, I, I, I don’t even know how you try to figure that out.
Carol McFarland: There’s a lot of moving parts in the agro-ecosystem, and I do think that part of our work as scientists is to try to help figure that out.
And put some of those puzzle pieces together. So- and again, especially in the applied ag space space, and try to do that for the benefit of this agro ecosystemsSo that kind of everybody wins. So what is one thing you wish you could change about the public’s understanding of agriculture?
Moses Boone: Well, I think there’s not a good understanding of, yeah, I talk a lot about tillage, but I don’t think there’s really any perception amongst the general public about how bad that really is for the environment.
It’s when you’re talking about burning crop residues, that’s easy for everyone to see. It’s this big dramatic event when you’re talking about tillage practices that maybe erode the 10th of an inch of soil per year. It’s hard to get a lot of people really excited about that. But if you think about the long term consequences, like, you know, food is the ultimate energy resource.
And if we deplete our ability to produce that resource, then, you know, there’s there’s going to be a lot of conflicts in the future that are that are fought over that that resource we need to you know, we need to to preserve that resource for now, not just for our children, but for the sake of everybody, everybody. You know, we can say that we’re just stewards of the land.
I know that’s kind of a cliche, but it’s true. And I think that that’s the one thing I change about public understanding, because it’s great to see that there’s so much interest amongst the public about where their food comes from and how it’s produced. You know, that’s- those are things that people have really taken an interest in lately.
But I think maybe there is there might be their attention might be a little bit mis-focused, I would even say manipulated by people who are trying to sell them food that that’s, you know, that’s labeled as being healthier or or are marketed as being healthier or better for the environment when when really we have some other practices that a lot of practices go into producing that food that is is really not sustainable at all and is destructive.
So I’m not sure what the word I think- I think there needs to be a new buzzword that people can latch on to. I’m not sure what that could be, but-
Carol McFarland: Maybe it’s regenerative?
Moses Boone: Regenerative? Yeah, that seems to be the next one that’s coming on.
Carol McFarland: To me it says that “sustainable” might not cut it anymore. We actually have to rebuild our resource and, you know, soil really is on geologic time.
Moses Boone: Yeah yeah that’s…it’s tough, but you know we have places in our field where well, a lot of our ridge tops have been in grass for a very long time. We haven’t been farming those. And, you know, you can you can see the difference in height in the soil compared to the stuff that’s been in grass and the stuff that’s that’s been farmed where there’s and and even in places there, we have, you know, the the strip of grass is wider than it used to be.
You know, there’s one drop off where they quit farming and put in more grass and then there’s another drop off, you know, because they saw that that erosion was continuing. So, yeah, you know, for most people, though, they’ll never see that, you know, they won’t get to see the field where their food is grown and the effect that that has.
Carol McFarland: Being connected with the agro-ecosystem, I think, and really understanding the complexity, it’s a very hard thing to put on a label.
There’s a lot there. Thanks for that as well. All right, let’s leave off on this last great question. Can you tell me a bit about…why do you think more farmers don’t experiment more often?
Moses Boone: I think one reason that farmers don’t experiment more often is…they don’t have that many opportunities to get things right.
You know, you look at someone who’s been a lifelong farmer, they’ve maybe had 40, 50 seasons in there-
Carol McFarland: There’s a book about that isn’t there?
Moses Boone: -in their whole career to get things to get things right. You know, you’re talking about you’ve got one shot to make your entire year income for that year. And it’s a big risk to experiment.
And then you’ve got the combination of weather and market conditions. So you could potentially run an experiment that would work great and then try to replicate it for the next ten years. I would never work because you just got lucky that one time, or you could run an experiment once and it doesn’t work, and you give up on it.
But if you would have run it ten more times, it would have worked every time after that. So, you know, there’s just- it’s so hard to get it right to begin with. And I think farmers don’t want to miss their chance if it just happens to be the one year where the combination of the weather and the market all works together and the conventional way of doing things, this this formula of, you know, use tillage and pesticides that kill everything and then plant your crop and then use pesticides to control the weeds and disease and pests and use fertilizer to supply all the crop nutrition and basically just turn the soil into, you know, an inert growing medium that’s just there to hold up the roots. And, you know, the farmer is supplying everything that the plant needs, that system. It sounds a little dystopian when you describe it like that, but it works. You know, it really works. So when you’ve got so much risk tied up in your primary process already, it’s hard to turn your back on something that you know is going to work.
Carol McFarland: Yeah, well, and, you know, sometimes one small thing can disturb the equilibrium, especially when it’s a bit of a fragile system. And finding that balance.
Moses Boone: So yeah, because I mean, most conservation techniques, you’re relying on organisms of some kind to do some work for you and, and they don’t always want to work for you. They work for themselves.
You know, they might not want to do the things that you want them to do. So it could be tricky to figure out how to make those things work.
Carol McFarland: Well, thank you so much. And I do think that that maybe is part of you know, I know from, on like the Cook Research farm with the USDA/LTAR as our site and WSU’s work there.
One of the things they’re looking for is this kind of long term resilience in the system. And, you know, so that maybe it’s not just the right conditions, you know, there is more stability in space and time and all of that. So maybe that kind of, you know, that’s trying things and learning between the farming and research community can build.
Moses Boone: Yeah, I think there’s an excellent synergy there because, you know, the you know, the commercial farmers, we can’t do a lot of those long term experiments to answer those really important questions that the research universities and research facilities can. So, you know, I’m always looking at the publications from WSU and U of I and other places because, you know, I’ve got questions about things that I want to try.
And a lot of the time you guys have already started to answer those questions. And then there’s sort of that tricky, tricky bridge where, you know, you read some research publication that has some promising insights, some sort of tantalizing results. But then as a farmer, I was thinking you have a work here and it can be tricky to take that leap of faith.
Usually. Usually you’re waiting for your neighbor to try it first. Once your neighbor does it, you’re like, okay, let’s do it.
Carol McFarland: Or just the right podcast episode. Yeah, well, that’s really great. And yeah, it sounds like some maybe those that’s part of the inspiration for trying things, right? You know, whether that’s on a small scale on your farm or a larger scale.
But thank you so much for your willingness to share your experiences. It’s been really great to visit with you during this time, and your farm is just gorgeous, thanks again.
Moses Boone: All right. Thank you for having me. It was great.